It’s unlikely that either major presidential candidate will visit Aberdeen on his campaign this fall, but it would not be the first visit by either a candidate or a sitting president to the Hub City. And the city likes to put out a good welcome. As one reporter prefaced a story on a presidential visit some 80 years ago, “The Northwest by tradition is the farthest removed from monarchs and royalist things, but there is something about a president…”
Five presidents have come to Aberdeen while in office: William McKinley (1899), Theodore Roosevelt (1903), William Howard Taft (1911), Franklin D. Roosevelt (1936), and George W. Bush (2002). While other men who would become or had been president also visited, the focus here will be on those by sitting presidents.
The presidents who visited Aberdeen were typically here for brief times, ranging from fifteen minutes to nearly seven hours. Almost no presidential action is without some politics, but most of the visits had a policy reason. Only Bush’s 2002 visit was openly political as it was for a campaign rally.
Yet only Bush’s visit occurred more than two years before his own reelection. All the others were within what has become the campaign timetable norm. So politics was never out of the picture.
William McKinley: October 14, 1899
Apparently, the first presidential visit and the first speech in South Dakota was made by William McKinley in Aberdeen (his train stopped in Groton to take on his greeting party, but there are no reports of a speech or appearance there).
Altogether, he made 14 stops in South Dakota, north to south, and spoke in 11 towns. His Aberdeen visit was to welcome soldiers returning from the Spanish-American War. The First Regiment included more than 500 soldiers from much of eastern South Dakota.
Any such visit requires a lot of planning. For a city of 5,000, the number of planners named in the paper exceeded 200, suggesting as much as 4% of the town helped.
In addition to assembling a large greeting assemblage of veterans, students, and dignitaries, the planners arranged for five blocks of bunting on Main Street between Railroad Avenue and the Grain Palace at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and South Main Street.
The McKinley party arrived at the Milwaukee Depot at Railroad Avenue and Main Street at 8:00 a.m. The troops reached the Northwestern Depot at First Avenue and South Dakota Street an hour later to an apparently resounding reception: “No returning soldiers of any nation ever received a more glorious welcome to their homes than was given by these great crowds as the boys left the cars.” The soldiers then marched in a parade, joined by schoolchildren, Civil War veterans, and ultimately the president and his party.
Upon reaching the Grain Palace, “As Major McKinley stepped upon the reviewing stand the vast crowd broke into outbursts of cheers such as had not been heard before.” A note on “Major”: McKinley was the last president to have served in the Civil War. The only one to have started as an enlisted soldier, he rose to the rank of Major. Estimates said 20,000-30,000 people were there.
After being introduced by the mayor, McKinley gave a short speech lauding the soldiers’ bravery and patriotism. Speeches by five other politicians followed. Afterwards, McKinley boarded his train and left, but the soldiers got a meal of turkey, ham, and oysters.
Reviews of the event were exemplary, in the cheerleading style of newspaper writing of the day: “Every person who was in the city Saturday, from President McKinley down, expressed the highest admiration for the manner in which the reception of the chief executive of the nation and the state’s beloved heroes was planned and carried out.
Every detail was arranged to perfection.” Another noted that Aberdeen “will hereafter be marked with a star and be designated the biggest, most enterprising, and most patriotic city of 5,000 souls in existence.”
For the view from outside media, who were always of interest in the coverage: “The representatives of Chicago and New York papers, who have been with the president’s party since it left Washington, pronounced the affair the most perfect of any of the scores of receptions Mr. McKinley has met on his trip.”
Theodore Roosevelt: April 6, 1903
In the next year, McKinley’s running mate, Theodore Roosevelt, came to Aberdeen during the 1900 campaign (he also spoke from the Grain Palace).
McKinley again defeated William Jennings Bryan, who had campaigned in Aberdeen during his unsuccessful 1896 race against McKinley. In September 1901, Roosevelt became president after McKinley’s assassination, and he came back to Aberdeen in 1903.
For a 15-minute visit, explained the headline of a story about its planning, “Nothing Elaborate to be Attempted, Owing to Short Stay of President, But It Will Be Rouser.” Much of the rousing came from railroad whistles and cheering fans: “Whistles announced the approach of his train, while people perched upon house-tops, telephone and other poles and points of vantage heralded his arrival to crowds below by waving flags and vociferous cheering.”
Starting in Sioux Falls, “President Roosevelt’s trip through South Dakota, from south to north, was one grand ovation.” He made 14 speeches during the day: “brief, rear-end talks at most places” (one hopes this means from the end of a train).
He arrived in Aberdeen about 7:30 p.m. and spoke briefly: “President Roosevelt had not the time, if he had the inclination, to discuss governmental affairs or policies in his speech in Aberdeen last night, but his talk was one which could not but reinforce his hearers’ belief in the American people and give them a higher ideal of American citizenship and the destiny of the United States.”
He also commended South Dakotans “on the quality and quantity of their children, and it will be admitted that I am a fair expert in the matter of children.” (Maybe a laugh line as he had six children.) After the speech, the train headed for Fargo after a brief stop so Roosevelt could greet the militia on the way out of town.
A year later, the president overcame a dump- Roosevelt movement to secure the nomination. He was aided by the death of Ohio Senator Mark Hanna, who had guided McKinley’s rise to the White House but had desperately opposed Roosevelt’s ascendance to the ticket when McKinley’s first-term vice president died.
A progressive unpopular with the conservative Republican establishment, then-New York Governor Roosevelt was nonetheless promoted for the second spot by a New York Republican senator who wanted him out of the way. Hanna responded, “Don’t any of you realize that there’s only one life between that madman and the Presidency?”
After the convention, a calmer Hanna wrote to McKinley, “Your duty to the country is to live for four years from next March.” Sadly, the president only lasted six months. In November 1904, the 46-year-old Roosevelt handily defeated his 80-year-old opponent, with 71% of South Dakota’s vote.
William Howard Taft: October 23, 1911
President Taft’s trip began in Massachusetts, went to the West Coast, and visited Aberdeen on the way back. On this day, Aberdeen was his seventh stop and speech, including some one-minute stops for speeches.
Plans were big: “Everything possible is being done to make the affair a gala day for all who come to the Hub city to hear and see the president. The general committee is planning many interesting sights and amusements to entertain the public in the afternoon until the main attraction, President Taft, arrives.”
In addition, “The visit to Aberdeen is to be one of the notable ones of his entire western tour and his address here is to partake of the nature of a keynote speech.” In fact, Taft made three speeches during an extended stop in the Hub City.
Visiting media again were of interest: “The importance of this trip may be judged by the fact that all of the news agencies and great metropolitan papers have their best political writers represent them, that nothing of significance may be overlooked.”
Another paper referred to “two score newspaper men from outside the state.” Despite all this attention, Aberdonian enthusiasm about the visit, or lack thereof, was a concern of coverage, something of a departure from the glowing accounts of previous visits.
Taft arrived at 5:30 p.m. and promptly traveled to Northern Normal and Industrial School to speak on the value of schools in fostering citizenship to more than 1,000 “cheering and enthusiastic students” from Northern and the public and parish schools.
This had to have been a brief speech, because the president made it to the Commercial Club at First Avenue and South Lincoln at about 6:00 p.m.
At the Commercial Club, more than 12,000 “enthusiastic Americans” packed the streets. “Members of the president’s party declared that the crowd was by far the largest in the state and larger and more enthusiastic than any which he had met since leaving Portland, Ore.”
On the other hand, one paper reported, “The crowed which greeted the president as he mounted the balcony of the club did not seem as enthusiastic as the occasion would warrant…applause was infrequent and not very enthusiastic.”
In likely the most substantive presidential speech delivered in Aberdeen, Taft spoke about international peace, focusing on proposed peace treaties that called for international conflicts to be arbitrated by a commission, which would wait a year before rendering judgment.
Explaining the delay, he described a man coming home from work angry and taking it out on his family until the thinking over his “utterly indefensible attitude [helps him] realize what an inevitable ass” he is. Taft added, “What is true of an individual is true of a nation.”
Against Senate reluctance to accept third party arbitration, Taft argued, “we ought to be willing to be defeated sometimes in order to make progress.” Taking a “heads I win and tails you lose [approach] is not a step in the direction of peace,” he said. In an American Exceptionalist conclusion, he proclaimed that “God has not given us all these resources, this great people, this opportunity, without charging us with responsibility in respect to it.”
A few hours after the speech, the Commercial Club hosted a banquet at 9:00 p.m. Those out-of-town reporters uncovered a “social war” in Aberdeen over whether guests “should wear evening clothes” to the dinner. One farmer bought tickets so his farmhands could attend in their overalls “unless the ‘dress suit’ edict was enforced.”
Not to worry, as one source reports, “two of the biggest clothing stores in town were kept open till late with a full line of evening clothes at marked-down prices.”
Taft’s banquet speech was a “forceful and convincing talk to business men about business.” He spoke about enforcing the anti-trust act, restoring competition, and fixing the tariff. After the speech, at about midnight, the president boarded his train for Minneapolis.
Whether the Hub City was adequately enthusiastic or not, the president sent a letter to Aberdeen’s mayor expressing “my genuine appreciation of the cordial reception accorded me.”
Of the five presidential visitors to Aberdeen, only Taft lost his reelection bid. Despite having been Roosevelt’s designated successor in 1908, his policies irritated the Rough Rider, who, after failing to wrest the Republican nomination from Taft, ran for President on the Progressive Party (Bull Moose) ticket.
Taft came in third, behind Roosevelt and the victorious Woodrow Wilson. The enthusiasm gap might have been real, as state Republicans declared Roosevelt to be their candidate, and the incumbent Republican president did not appear on the South Dakota ballot.
Franklin D. Roosevelt: August 28, 1936
Near the end of his first term, FDR took a tour of areas stricken by “drouth” (the pronunciation and spelling of “drought” at the time), coming to Aberdeen about a month after his re-nomination at the Democratic Convention. Despite the drought, rain and resulting mud prior to the visit threatened to cancel FDR’s tour even as late as the day of his arrival. Some in the crowd waiting to see him gave him credit for the rain on the “dust bowl.”
FDR arrived at about 4:00 p.m. accompanied by some 40 newspaper writers and photographers for his three-hour Aberdeen stop. The visit began with a tour through Aberdeen’s business and residential areas.
Viewers stood ten deep along his route: “the biggest crowd ever to line these streets.” When the motorcade came, “The long line of spectators stiffened as though an electrical charge passed among them, gaped a moment at the famous, though fleeting Roosevelt smile, and then broke into a pandemonium of clapping, shouting and hat-waving to shame royalty’s loudest ovation.”
The mid-1930s papers shared more critical comments in their reporting than had their forebears. One quoted an onlooker, saying FDR was just “flattering our ego so he’ll get our votes.” On the other hand, another story quoted a Washington reporter’s observation that “They hadn’t been in a town where the parade and affairs were managed so smoothly.”
FDR also visited the Works Progress Administration dam at Richmond Lake and
a farmer, whom he impressed by asking “the questions another farmer would if you met him.” When Roosevelt returned to Aberdeen, crowds still lined the streets. Just before departing, he responded to calls of “Speech!” with a five-minute, apparently unplanned, talk from the rear of the train.
He said he would “take back to Washington ‘a picture of people with courage and their chins up’ who are going to see the drouth through. ‘And I’m going to help,’ he declared.” Altogether, some 40,000 people saw him in town and countryside.
Less than three months after his visit, FDR won what was at that point the largest electoral vote sweep since 1820 (when James Monroe had, essentially, no opponent and won all but one electoral vote), including South Dakota’s then-four electoral votes.
George W. Bush: October 31, 2002
As drought was a concern of FDR’s visit, it was on the mind of some spectators on the next presidential visit to Aberdeen. Some 66 years later, President Bush came to NSU’s Barnett Center on Halloween in 2002 to campaign for Republican candidates.
Farmers as well as Aberdeen native Senator Tom Daschle, then-Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, were disappointed that the president’s speech didn’t address the agricultural problems farmers were facing. In fact, the rally drew a small protest from farmers wanting emergency drought aid, machinists complaining about jobs lost overseas, and protests against an imminent war in Iraq.
Times had changed. Reporting of earlier visits of presidents of both parties was mostly uncritical, but coverage of Bush’s visit—which was also much more partisan than its predecessors—quoted more local complaints, especially about logistics and security.
Barely a year after 9/11, open presidential events were a thing of the past, and attendees needed tickets. Most tickets were distributed in advance, and 1,000 were to be handed out first-come first-serve the day before, but many in line left with nothing but hard feelings in sub-freezing temperatures.
Then on the day of the event, many ticket holders didn’t get in because security couldn’t get bundled-up people through the line fast enough to stay on schedule. Hundreds were literally left out in the cold.
Again, the presence of more than 30 outside media people, including New York Times and foreign reporters, drew local attention. The Aberdeen American News’ Scott Waltman noted that one member of the national press corps said of South Dakota, “It’s not as bad as I’d expected.”
Temperatures were in the teens when Bush arrived. Hundreds of people guessed where they could catch a glimpse of the motorcade as it made its way to NSU. Security had kept the route secret.
Viewers camped at Animal Health Center at Sixth and Melgaard were disappointed to see the cars leave the airport through a west gate onto Melgaard Road. On Melgaard, First Baptist School students had planned well, standing outside with signs to greet the president. At Melgaard Park, the motorcade turned north on Lloyd and weaved its way to the Barnett Center.
Some 7,200 people attended the rally and loved it, many standing on their feet throughout. The -president proclaimed, “Your duty is to cast a vote on November 5,” he said. “And I’ve got some suggestions for you.”
That would be John Thune for Senate, Bill Janklow for U.S. House, and Mike Rounds for Governor. “These good people are going to get elected,” Bush pronounced. Altogether, Bush’s visit lasted about two hours. As a political event, the costs were borne by the Republican Party and the campaigns.
After the visit and the ticket problems, there were reports that the Party would open a Bush visit to Sioux Falls for turned-away Aberdeen guests. The upshot of the Bush visit is unclear. Janklow and Rounds won their elections handily, but Bush’s trifecta prediction fell short as Thune lost to incumbent Senator Tim Johnson by a mere 532 votes.
One might be tempted to recall those hundreds of disgruntled ticket holders, but a Libertarian candidate’s 3,000 votes is a more likely the cause.
If a president again decided to make a visit, Aberdeen would again put its best foot forward. As that early reporter summarized: “There is something about a president…that a king would envy.”
Note: This story looks back at these visits through the lens of newspaper reporting on the events. In the spirit of brevity, the newspaper sources here are not identified, but most information and quotations come from The Aberdeen Daily News, Aberdeen Weekly News, or Aberdeen American News.
Other Presidential Visits – Before or After Taking Office
Several other presidents visited the Hub City before or after they served.
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